Was Old Music Actually Better?

(Last Updated On: September 13, 2022)

It’s an old, if not unfamiliar, rant. People love to talk about how music from their day was much better than the slop that’s on the radio now. Movies are always just getting worse despite raking in tons of money, which must mean people who consume media nowadays just have no sense of taste. Honestly, that may well be true, because everyone has bad taste. But also, old people will always complain about young people and vice versa. Anyway, the answer to this question is obviously subjective; if you like old music more than to you it is better. But let’s try hacking at this question more broadly. Was old music actually better?

It’s partly because it’s old

But these claims aren’t without merit. In the early 2010s, old music started out selling its peers for the first time. As of 2022, the market for new music is actually shrinking in both sales and popularity. Growth is coming from older songs. Even on streaming services, the top streamed songs aren’t contemporary, older songs are defined here as “at least 18 months older than the respective year.” That sample does mean people could just be listening to two-year-old songs rather than 50-year-old songs, but there are still powerful drivers for the popularity of the latter. Plus, it’s probably still a little weird we get hung up on two-year-old music when everything about pop-culture is what’s happening right now and if you’re five minutes early you’ve already missed the boat.

The reason for this is quite simple, and we’ve talked about it on the blog before: it’s familiarity. In psychology you might see it called the mere-exposure effect, but it really just boils down to “people like things they are already familiar with.” Specifically, people like songs they associate with specific memories or periods of their life. Old music, in the time it took to become “old,” probably had a lot more time for you to associate it with all sorts of fun memories–something a new song just can’t ever compete with. So part of the reason people might prefer older music is because it aged with them. 

Music is pretty unique

It also doesn’t help that the music industry right now perpetuates this. Record labels invest in older music rather than what’s coming out now or other kinds of innovation. That’s pretty counter to our intuitions about capitalism. New music is featured less in radio rotations, and the music industry is known for being exceptionally petty and litigious. Ask anyone who has ever put like two seconds of a song into a YouTube video. For this reason, labels might claim they are incentivized to avoid unsolicited demos like the plague. You know, since listening to a recording and then making something maybe sort of similar down the line can get them sued. If you’re not incentivized to discover talent, but you still want to make money, all that’s really left to you is old stuff that you know already works. 

The long short of it is “the suits don’t invest in new music.” 

WWII Planes

If the answer to “was old music actually better” is “yes,” it might be best to put an asterisk next to it. Chiefly, the old music we have now might be better than the new music coming out now. But we have to remember that, at some point, old music was in fact new at some point. You also definitely expected this story about WWII planes because it’s reposted all over the internet–or you had no idea we were going to go from “young people like bad music” to planes in the 1940s.

Anyway, the story goes like this: A guy named Abraham Wald was supposed to figure out where to reinforce the armor on American bombers. The data he was given was of the bombers that made it back with bullet holes in them. So, perhaps intuitively, everyone wanted to put more armor where the bullet holes were since obviously that’s where the planes were getting shot. Wald allegedly was the guy who said “wait a minute, reinforce where the planes aren’t getting it.” His reasoning was simple: planes hit in those locations simply didn’t make it back. 

Cool story, except it’s not entirely true. Wald did a lot more than just invoke a logical fallacy. He also did a lot of math

The veracity of the story doesn’t really matter, what really matters is survivorship bias. Basically we tend to ignore failures and overemphasize successes. Applying that to old music, survivorship bias would tell us we’re just listening to the best of the oldies. We don’t remember the bad ones. While great new music is coming out, there’s invariably going to be some bad stuff as artists experiment. Tying it all together, there’s an argument to be made that we’re comparing the best of the old music to newer music that’s still growing.

Do they actually make them like they used to?

No, of course they don’t. The way music is made now is not at all the same as the way it was made in the ‘70s or ‘80s. Once digital recording took to the scene, audio engineers started valuing “loudness”. This resulted in a narrower range, but people perceived this to mean a “stronger sound” that was necessary for success. Despite the advent of streaming, the dynamic range of music now is still less than some older hits across genres. It probably doesn’t do new music any favors that a larger dynamic range is generally good for a song’s longevity.

So while it’s a little bit “old man yells at cloud,” we guess it’s literally true.

Speaking of music, try identifying some musicians here.



About Kyler 686 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.